“In the fight between you and the world, back the world.” Franz Kafka, Great Wall of China, Aphorism 50, Page 171
This is one of the few aphorisms of Kafka that leaves me scratching my head. It causes me to wonder whether I trust ‘the world’ any more than I trust myself to have a respectful relationship with it—always in the context of whatever manifestation of the ‘world’ I am interacting with at the time.
Then this morning I read a passage that clarified my back-and-forth ruminations on this issue:
“It (The self) indulges in mental dialogues about itself, the world, and its guests. The dialogues ‘mean things’ within the world order, and that order is somehow more basic than the particular instances of ‘meaning’.” Time, Space, Knowledge, page 170.
Something clicked as I read this: I think of the ‘world’ as ‘real’ because it is clearly more extensive than my small role in it; and I think of myself as able to relate to this world because it repeatedly affirms my view of it. In other words, when I view the world and believe it to be more extensive, more reliable, and more substantial than any thought I can form of it, I am not a disinterested party in this transaction. I am looking from a viewpoint that reflects the culture in which I have been born–continuously refined in the course of my travels—and it’s far from clear that I have ever been an independent observer in this process.
I do a lot of pointing towards a greater presence, which I conceive of as an abiding environment in which my particular perspectives are aspects of this whole; and this sometimes allows me to feel a glow of intimacy in my individual embodiment. Meanwhile, this ‘something greater’, at least in how I usually approach it, also provides a logically consistent ‘world order’, whose supposed presence allows me to feel defined and supported. This ‘world order’ can hardly escape from being, at least in part, a convenient projection on the part of my ‘self’–sought out in order to supply the missing ingredients needed by (convenient for) this ‘self’. So it’s hardly surprising that this ‘world order’ appears to reliably confirm the suppositions inherent in the perspective that I have adopted.
An inference is that this ‘world order’ is not intrinsically the greater wholeness for which the heart yearns but, rather, provides what the head needs in order to fill in the blanks in its own incomplete, partial world view: a paint-by-numbers ‘work of art’ that then allows me to point to this surrounding ‘world’ as a greater ‘reality’. This ‘work of artifice’ in turn allows me to place my small knowing within a vaster ‘knowable’ reality, and then to feel reassured that this ‘reality’—with its preexisting momentums and unquestioned ‘substantiality’—is identical to the eternity of time and the infinity of space.
And why should I care about my connection with a ‘world’ or what existential authenticity such a ‘world’ may or may not have? There are several reasons. In addition to the logical argument outlined above, I also have a personal motivation.
In the past few years I have begun thinking and talking about ‘Mother Earth’ as an ancient being sailing through the infinite and the eternal–Who also provides an intimate home for all the embodied beings who will ever live upon Her. This perspective provides me with an alternative to religious perspectives which tend to polarize between a limited present lifetime and an eternity beyond this abode of impermanence and suffering (a ‘veil of tears’ which individuals lack the power or the goodness to personally surmount). And so–rising up to apparently connect the local with the global, the self with something greater, and to span the gap between fallen creatures and an unattainable beyond—many people today look to Mother Earth.
There’s an old saying that if something seems improbable it probably is; and an ‘unearned’ eternity of bliss strikes me as improbable. It seems morally necessary for us flawed beings, living in our flawed collectives, to assume responsibility to live as well as we are able to right here and now, if we are to have any authentic hope of graduating to a finer realm. And where are we to practice this ‘responsibility’? That’s when I look around and notice that I have not been selected for some unique and privileged future and that my present difficulties are not anything special in a ‘world’ marked by great suffering for so many.
There’s a story from the life of the Buddha, that a man suffering from a great loss came to the Buddha, asking for a teaching that would help him be free of his suffering. The Buddha told him to go into the surrounding town and to knock on people’s doors until he found someone whose life was free of such losses. The man left and returned three days later, having been unable to find a single person who had not also been marked by loss and death.
So I want to hold onto my image of Mother Earth: as my personal foothold in time and space; as Herself an ancient being at home in the infinite and the eternal; as the closest thing to a greater whole that I can actually touch and move through; and whose survival and health as a ‘world for the many’ is more important than my own.
But if I don’t go out among the fellow beings with whom I share this planet and this present time in eternity, it will be only my head that is thereby searching for a half-way house, not my heart realizing that I am already at home.